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May 01, 2011

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Kiss Me, Son of God

For what it's worth, I don't think Kois was "picking on" Solaris etc. so much as picking on himself for not getting it (before, granted, coming to the conclusion that he's Happy The Way He Is). My only real problem with this piece, which I admit to somewhat identifying with (though I would never use the term "cultural vegetables" or equate slow films with boredom), is that it's in the NYT magazine instead of, you know, a blog. Because there's no reason why a wide, random readership needs to be aware of Dan Kois' insecurity regarding art films.

The main problem may be less the subject than the fact that Kois is not a very good writer; I can certainly imagine A.O. Scott, for one, taking this same subject and fashioning a thoughtful, insightful piece out of it. I mean, we all DO have those "blind spots," or whatever your preferred terminology may be, of cultural objects that we want to experience fulsomely and simply can't find our way into. Or at least I have plenty of them. But if asked to contribute a piece to the NYT Magazine I would probably write about... something else.

Glenn Kenny

@ KMSOG: Picking on himself? Maybe, maybe not. In breakup scenarios, how often do you think the person saying "It's not you, it's me" really means it?

Kiss Me, Son of God

Fair point Glenn, but the tone of the piece is so navel-gaze-y that I can't really take it as an attack on any of the "vegetable" art Kois is forsaking. He's basically working out his own insecurities with the NYT as his therapist's couch. Not fun or enlightening stuff, to be sure, but I think its stance is defensive rather than offensive.

Tom

I hope that piece is a resignation letter to the paper. If you can't find joy in the major works of the form you're critiquing, you are in the wrong profession; a major newspaper should not be harboring that writer in a film department. If your secret shame is that you want to keep up with art because other people's opinions make you feel inferior but, damn it, it is no fun to keep up with art, there are many jobs elsewhere.

The Siren

1. What's wrong with being self-styled?

2. Oh ho, so you married someone who's never seen a Tarkovsky. I married someone who read David Thomson on John Ford and said "That's the best analysis of John Ford I've ever read." I WIN!

Sort of. Unless I want to watch My Darling Clementine in peace.

Love me, love my Ford-hating husband. Because he's cute.

Eric Arima

To the question "Why 'Solaris?'" in addition to being revered, do you think that it might also be that there is so much academic criticism of the movie. For example, if people encounter the movie through the Lacanian vocabulary of Zizek, then a viewer might associate not getting the movie with not getting Zizek. [This is more addressed to the title question more than Kois' article.]

jbryant

Weird that he seems to feel some sort of pride that he ultimately passed on watching the first season finale of TREME, a series he really liked.

I agree with Kiss that the article seems more appropriate for a blog entry. Who is this thing for? Cinephiles will sneer, philistines will chuckle at the hand-wringing. A few middlebrow types will be enjoy the validation, I guess.

I just find the whole concept of the piece, well, boring. Like every few years when a new generation "grapples" with whether CITIZEN KANE is really the best movie ever made. I know that KANE, like most movies, comes with baggage, but it takes a great writer to unpack it in a way that adds something worthwhile to the conversation.

Joel

It doesn't sound like he's bored by movies where "nothing happens." It sounds like he's bored by movies that primarily use long takes. The ones he likes, such as Yi Yi, may be long, but they're also cut fairly fast, with several overlapping story lines. This is the only way I can explain how he finds The Son to be boring.

On the other hand, one should never be ashamed of calling a movie "boring," as long as you think that you have a pretty good grasp on what the film was trying to do. I thought Regular Lovers was incredibly boring, but I think that I have a good sense of why it needed to be four very slow hours of stoned Marxist students pontificating about why their half-assed revolution failed. Does anyone else want to admit that they found a universally loved art film boring?

Glenn Kenny

@ jbryant: What was Larkin's Law of Reissues? Everything worthwhile gets reissued every five years? Well, in magazines, every crappy "think piece" idea gets recycled every three years. That's one "death of print" reason no one talks about, because it would be to embarrassing to admit the paucity of imagination that led up to this state.

@ joel: J. Hoberman has written of a "boredom that transcends boredom," and it's common in a lot of contemporary art, music even more so than film. I personally think that doesn't apply so much to "Solaris." And it's true that one person's transcendence CAN be another person's snoozefest. "Boredom" to me signifies not so much a restive state but an active disconnection with some attendant irritation. For some reason "Baise-moi" is a film that springs to mind when contemplating this state.

Kois really shows his hand when he dribbles his enthusiasm for Steven Soderbergh's films and then nudges the reader's ribs with the parenthetical "Except for his remake of 'Solaris,' obviously." Ar ar ar. Said "remake" is half the length of the Tarkovsky picture and was conceived not so much as a Tarkovsky rethink than as a differing-perspective adaptation of Lem's novel. (As it happens, Lem despised BOTH movies.) But never let an accurate consideration get in the way of a lame joke; that's the modern film critic's motto!

lipranzer

Glenn, I apologize in advance for once again taking note of the most arcane part of your well-written smackdown (equating the joy his daughter gets in watching a series that challenges her with the inadequacy he feels in watching Tarkovsky - among many things, that's just illogical), but what "Felicity" episode? Granted, it's been a while since I watched the show (I'm one of those people who stopped watching the reruns when I realized they changed the music), but I don't remember one that referenced SOLARIS.

Glenn Kenny

@ lipranzer: The episode would be "Cheating," season one, episode six. The "Russian movie" referred to in the "Television Without Pity" summary is, in fact "Solaris." Oh, those wacky NYU students! Here's the link:http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/felicity/cheating.php?page=7

A bunch of my Premiere colleagues and I were very "WTF?" about the whole thing BITD.

brian p

yeah, i wouldn't take it too seriously. it's just a man announcing himself as a vulgarian baboon fumbling as he comes to grips with his own inability to comprehend things beyond his means. first off he claims that kelly reichardt's last 3 movies are 'portrayed in seeming real time'. (um, no they're not. rope is portrayed in seeming real time. old joy is set across several days). then he takes down Tulpan and The Son both of which - even should one find them demanding - are empirically fucking incredible and anyone who cares to announce themselves as a 'film critic' would not dismiss out of hand. i could understand if the piece was geared more around tarkovsky-ites or tarr-ites who wear their impression of each moment of each film as hipster-street cred but to literally cite a viewing in college of a laser-disc at the library as evidence of how boring solaris is seems to confirm the limitations of who the reader is dealing with.

Jason M.

"Solaris" is boring? Pshaw. With the possible exception of "Ivan's Childhood," it's easily Tarkovsky's most accessible film. Also, it's got a full-on narrative and everything, and clocks in at under 3 hours. In art-cinema world, that's nothing. Try any number of avant-garde films (Snow's "La Region Centrale" comes to mind here), one of Warhol's longer films (like "Sleep" or "Empire"), or if you're not feeling that brave, go with something accessible and punchy like "Jeanne Dielman" or "Satantango." Or maybe "Colossal Youth" if you want a shorter film that deals with that newfangled digital aesthetic.

On a hopefully less snarky note, Glenn, I think you're really right when you write that the film is only difficult or inaccessible as you want it to be. It really irks me when people (especially critics) use the term 'boring' as a (usually dismissive) negative descriptor when talking about a movie. 'Boring' has very little to do with the inherent qualities of the movie when you get down to it, and almost everything to do with the viewer's approach to the movie. It speaks to an unwillingness to engage with the work (usually a kneejerk reaction to either pacing or duration), and then a desire to write this off as if it's somehow the movie's fault - "The film failed to engage me" - rather than the other way around. It also usually assumes that the chief purpose of a movie (or other form of entertainment/art) is to amuse and divert you, the viewer, by use of smoke, mirror, bells & whistles, etc. In short, it's supposed to be FUN, as if fun were the highest goal one could aspire to. (Not saying that there's anything wrong with fun, mind you, only that the fun factor shouldn't necessarily be the be-all end-all criterion by which something is judged).

As an aside, there's absolutely nothing wrong with finding a film boring or inaccessible; this happens to everyone at times, with a wide variety of films. And to an extent, I think it's admirable that Kois, in this article, sees this as his own shortcoming. But too frequently, the film itself ends up bearing the label; furthermore, as also seen in Kois' article, it becomes an excuse for the critic to not engage further with works that he or she finds challenging, which, through their writing, encourages other people to avoid or write off works which may smack of boredom or inaccessibility. Which is a far worse thing.

Partisan

Hey! I like Angelopoulos! LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST and THE WEEPING MEADOW are excellent. And if THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS was easily available on DVD so that I could see it again I would probably find it excellent too.

Glenn Kenny

Note, Partisan, that I said "a few" Angelopoulos movies. I share your enthusiasm for "Landscape" and "Players" but have yet to see "Meadow." "Eternity and a Day" and "The Dust of Time," not so much.

Mike D

Kois = Peter Griffin?

That Fuzzy Bastard

The really sad thing is, I suspect Solaris was singled out not so much for anything in the movie, as for the fact of its Russian-ness. As a long-time fan of many Russian novelists and filmmakers, I discovered long ago that in the American imagination, "Russian" is a synonym for "long, abstruse, heavy, boring". Which is how you get a fairly accessible, arguably overheated writer like Dostoyevsky being used as a synecdoche for "abstract philosophical books". Or how you account for the relatively mainstream success of "Love and Death", a movie which is pretty funny for someone who knows the works Allen is parodying (though Allen, a congenital name-dropper who rarely displays much understanding of the references he makes, seems sorta confused about the difference between Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy), but which worked for the middlebrows that used to flock to Allen movies because for most of 'em, the words "Russian film" immediately conjures up images of slow-blowing wheat fields in a way that "Greek film" or "Thai film" wouldn't.

warren oates

I haven't read the piece in question, but I can testify that SOLARIS was my second Tarkovsky after IVAN'S CHILDHOOD, back in my late teens, and I (wrongly) hated hated hated it the first time through. For a week or so I foolishly proclaimed that not only was I through with Tarkovsky films, I was done with all other art films too! Now, older and wiser, Tarkovsky is my favorite director, STALKER my favorite film and SOLARIS probably the one I've seen the most times. I can now agree with Glenn that SOLARIS seems particularly watchable and accessible. But my youthful and inexperienced brain once found Tarkovsky's SOLARIS as alien as the planet for which it is named.

Bill Sorochan

I'm an individual who loves watching movies but is easily bored by, and doesn't get, movies like Fast Five or Sucker Punch or Your Highness. I wonder what label Mr. Kois would best describe individuals who share such a view?

Brian Dauth

I think Glenn well defines boredom when he describes it as: "an active disconnection with some attendant irritation." The subjective nature of spectatorship will render some works of art beyond fruitful aesthetic engagement, and while I believe that a critic should try and establish engagement, sometimes it cannot be accomplished. In these cases, the idea should be to identify the element(s) that prevents connection, and then analyze the work from that standpoint.

This said, I must respectfully disagree when Glenn writes that a film is “inaccessible only if you want it to be.” While spectatorship has a significant element of volition, there are films which are inaccessible due to subjective experiences/circumstances of a viewer’s life that are not amenable to change.

What I find most odd about Kois’ piece is this sentence: “They love the experience of watching movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part — i.e., not the part where you’re watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.” While I am a great admirer of the historical/cultural move away from the Romantic (occasionally Modernist) notion of the spectator as the empty vessel in thrall to the offering of the artist/priest (and will also readily admit to enjoying the sight of my own voice), this idea that the “good part” is the consequent time engaged in speaking/writing about the art work seems an instance of a pendulum swung too far. At its best, subsequent speaking/writing should impel both speaker and listener back to the artwork for further involvement, where a great richness resides in enhanced aesthetic engagement.

James Keepnews

+1 on the whole "if you hate SOLARIS, you gone _love_ MIRROR" meme -- indeed, outside of IVAN, it's as directly narrative as a cinephile can hope from Andrei Andreevich. G-d knows my mileage varies when it comes to introducing Tarkovsky to the uninitiated (Glenn, I'm just shocked you and YLW haven't watched ANY Tarkovsky until now) as most people "get it" as an immersive experience with multiple oblique emotional and philosophical resonances -- plus, you know, a five minute drive through a Modern Everycity, Mom washing an arm with water poured from a pitcher in a dream, &c.

Long takes are going to be the bane of the Mobile Device Generation, already destroying most concert-going for me for those devices' ubiquity and the demonstrated inability of their owners to turn the motherfuckers to "silent" for 90 minutes. Sitting still and paying undistracted attention for even minutes at a time increasingly has virtually no value whatsoever for the twitchy, nanosecond-span culture bequeathed by Web 2.0 and among many other things, woe betide the cinema of Tarkovsky, Tarr, Akerman, 21st c. Romania, &c. accordingly. Regardless, and frankly, even as a fairly impatient aesthete, I thoroughly mistrust anyone who complains about any work of art as being "boring" -- I only hear the complainer's whiny inner brat crying out to be spoonfed. I mean, unless we're talking about THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE. Christ, that's gotta be the most insufferably boring film ever... :}

Oliver_C

Lots of ambitiously long takes in Richard Linklater's 'Slacker', and more than a few mentions of Tarkovsky in the (highly recommended) Criterion DVD's extensive supplements.

Harry K.

I understand and agree with the fact that this shouldn't have been a piece of print journalism, as many above have stated. Feel the but coming...

BUT

I want to put in a good word for boredom. And I hope I come across well enough in print not to turn to stone in the glare of possible reproach. Boredom, if well expressed, can be a useful critical tool. This is outside of whatever particular film by Tarkovsky or Tarr or whomever we are referring to. They can be paced, through editing, or a bad performance, or in a recent case for me, incredibly poor music choice, such that the film does not allow you entrance into the world that so many others enjoy. Boredom would be the expression of that. Which sounds like a lecture I would have heard in middle school, sorry.

No matter how great the ideas, if the execution is off in a way that just peels your skin back to your nose, it's going to kill the film.

Glenn Kenny

@ Harry K. : Well put. But, you know, what you're talking about is related to actual criticism. Really grappling with the material in an attempt to find a form by which to convey what the piece actually is, and what it does, and whether it does it well. And dealing with concrete specifics. Not saying "this movie has a five minute shot of nothing but cars driving on a highway and I don't get it and it's SLOW!" (What's miraculous about Tarkovsky and Tarr at their best is that their combined effects within a single take or scene are so perfectly calibrated.)

Victor Morton

"Solaris is only really difficult and inaccessible if you actually want it to be."

I think this is simply wrong. One can say it's not as difficult and inaccessible as other Tarkovsky films. (Check.) One can say that its difficulties and accessibility issues are worth overcoming. (Check.) But to say it's not difficult or inaccessible? (Waiter ... check.)

How is it possible to read "Sculpting in Time" and deny that Tarkovsky made movies for himself and the like-minded and not for a mass audience. He made movies deliberately and obviously about the Meaning of Life and Love and God and Existence (I can't find the exact quote quickly but I seem to remember that he said he would be appalled if his movies were as popular as Spielberg's). He even explicitly takes on the issue of his supposed inaccessibility and never denies it as a fact about his films.

I believe it was Jim Hoberman (or it could've been Rosenbaum -- neither man a philistine regardless) who said Tarkovsky's films demand to be seen twice or not at all. To establish my bona fides, I didn't like a single one of Tarkovsky's post-IVAN films on first viewing, but came to treasure them all except MIRROR (which is simply too personal for its own good) after multiple viewings. But it DOES generally take that, GLW notwithstanding.

Glenn Kenny

Look, Victor, I know you're not meaning to nit-pick, but seriously, I don't choose my words without care. So when I say "if you actually want it to be" there's an implication that could be taken as saying "if you're willing to do the work." Or something. I've seen "Solaris" and "Stalker" about ten times each, and gotten more out of them every time. Learning about their source material, how they were made, and reading some of the critical literature on the work has absolutely enhanced my appreciation of them. But both films DID make an immediate impact on me first time out that was a real thing. You have your immediate and post-immediate experience, I have mine. This whole argument began because some dude wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that strongly suggested that people who claimed to enjoy "Solaris" were lying in order to lord it over people. I think we can both agree that that isn't the case, and that's the assumption we should be diligently fighting.

Victor Morton

"some dude wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that strongly suggested that people who claimed to enjoy 'Solaris' were lying in order to lord it over people."

Actually, that's POLICE, ADJECTIVE.

Glenn Kenny

Good one, VM.

I.B.

The name 'Tarkovsky' sounds heavy, or something. Try to make fun of how "boring" Bresson or Godard or Sokurov or Tarr are and it doesn't just sound the same. 'Antonioni' used to do the trick (you could contrive to poorly rhyme it with 'arty' and add the punchline "and the guy's name is Michelangelo!"), but it lacks the Russian overtones of abstruse, deep meaningful shit. And I guess Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be grateful guys like Kois can't even begin to pronounce his name.

The reason 'Solaris' is the Tarkovsky film that continuously gets under fire is because it's his best known one, just that. Which I've always found a bit baffling, it being my least favourite of his films (and The Man thought likewise), but that's another matter.

Still, it's refreshing to find the old "these people say they like things NOBODY could possibly like to achieve world domination, or pussy, or... well, I don't know, but I know the bastards! You big FAKERS! I'm not dumb!" conspiracy going.

Dan Coyle

All I can say is: I agree, Glenn. I agree.

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